Getting Ready for the SAL-30

After coming home Friday to find a box of antenna parts from Array Solutions on my front porch, the heavens opened up, and rained out any antenna construction plans I may have had. The good news is that I’ll be ready to go on Saturday, armed with everything I’ll need to get the new and improved SAL-30 up in the air by sunset.*

500 foot spool of 12 gauge wire: CHECK! The standard kit comes with 24 gauge, but I used 12 gauge when I put it up originally, so I’m sticking with it. unlike the loops on the SAL-20, which were constructed with 65 feet of wire each, the SAL-30 will be using a whopping 95 feet for each loop. That’s a lot of wire!

Replacement mast poles: CHECK! Since the SAL series of antennas requires a fiberglass mast, and will not work with aluminum, I bought replacements for the ones Fido destroyed. I should have an extra section when I’m done.

Guy rope and tensioners: CHECK! The SAL-30 kit came with enough guy rope for two levels of guys for the mast, as well as enough to support the loops itself. they also included eight tensioners, which is handy as well. Let’s hope I don’t screw up with the cuts.

New support stakes: CHECK! I decided to beef up the stakes I was using with more heavy duty supports.

Cable ties: CHECK! Cable ties are the duct tape of amateur radio. They’ll come in handy during the initial construction phase.

Heatshrink tubing, and insulators: CHECK! Heatshrink tubing is a Godsend to HAMs, almost as useful as cable ties for antenna projects. I actually have dogbone insulators for this job, although the makeshift PVC pipe sections I used for the SAL-20 worked just fine.

Soldering gun and solder: CHECK! Actually, I better double check this when I get home. i might need to get another tip for the Weller.

Nice weather: CHECK? If the forecasters are to be believed, we are supposed to be in the seventies this Saturday, with a 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I’m not crazy about the 19 mph wind, but well, welcome to Iowa.

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Dude, you go ahead and get the antenna up. I’ll stay here and guard the couch. could you hand me the TV remote before you go please?

So the stage is set, and I am very anxious to see if this new antenna can hear. If I don’t screw anything up, and the thunderstorms stay away until Saturday night, I should be ready to put this new antenna through its paces early next week.

Now if my helper was as enthused about this project as I am.

*I say this knowing full well that it is not true. As with all of my projects, I am certain there will be at least one trip to the hardware store for things I didn’t anticipate, I just don’t know what those things are yet. It would also be a good idea to mow the lawn before getting this beast up, as it will make my life easier in the long run. Hopefully I can get that done before Saturday.

Radio Silence

Testing, testing. Is this thing on?

In retrospect,¬†maybe it wasn’t my best decision to start airing commercials for HF Radio Review on The Mighty KBC the same week I tried to switch to a new web hosting company. In fact it was a terrible idea, but it just sort of happened that way anyways. I should know very well that these things are never quick and painless, but it would be different with my own website right? Right?? Wrong!

The good news is that, after a lot of hard work, HF Radio Review is back up, and open for business once again.

Now if I could only say the same for my SAL-20.

About two weeks ago, the unthinkable happened when my neighbor’s dog (who would make a fine rug by the way) took off after a squirrel and brought down the SAL-20 antenna. While that is annoying in itself, he also managed to crack several sections of mast AND ripped one of the loops completely out of the guy ring. This wasn’t going to be a simple put it back up kind of operation, this was going to need a complete rebuild.

And since I was going to have to rebuild it, I decided to take this opportunity to upgrade it as well. Ten days after making the call to Array Solutions, the Big Brown Truck delivered all of the parts I will need to rebuild the SAL-20 as its big brother, the SAL-30. I was very eager to get this beast up and running this weekend, but the weatherman has other ideas, as we can expect a soaking rain to move in tonight and stay all weekend. Should I have expected anything different? Expect a blog about hilarity that is sure to ensue.

By the way, if you have the recources, I’d like to encourage you to give what you can to the Mighty KBC. Dave Mason and Uncle Eric Van Willegen are truly trying to keep music on shortwave alive, and I hope you’ll help them in the fight. Every Euro counts, so please, give what you can to keep the farts blasting into the stratosphere.

It’s good to be back.

The Great Antenna Shoot Out of 2014

The Big SAL has been up and running for over a month now, and all is well. The wind hasn’t taken it down, and I’ve peaked and tweaked it to get as much performance out of it as I can. But was it worth it? Can it hear things that the other antennas can’t? With that question in mind, I have put together a few comparisons of the SAL and my other two antennas on different frequencies and under different conditions. The results are dramatic to say the least.

First, a brief description of our contenders:

It doesn't get any simpler than this.
It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

The Longwire. This antenna is about as basic as it gets. It’s a sloping longwire going from a ground rod up into a nearby walnut tree. It’s about 65′ long, slopes at about a 30 degree angle, and is about 30′ at it’s highest point. There’s no balun, just a direct solder into a SO-239 connector. It shouldn’t work as well as it should, but all in all its a pretty nice antenna. The antenna runs from North to South.

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The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B

The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B. This would’ve been a godsend when I lived in Baltimore, and spent most of my time fighting the leaky transformers and transmission lines that ran down my back alley. Since it receives off of the ends, it spends most of its time oriented North and South, but it can be rotated.

You can read more about the loop, and see some of the shaky cell phone demo videos in a previous blog post.

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The SAL on construction day.

The Shared Apex Loop array (SAL 20). The latest tool in my listening arsenal, and the one I’m sure my readers are about sick of hearing about. Hey, what’s not to love though? This is easily the most directional of the three antennas I have, allowing me to choose incoming signals from any of eight points on the compass. With the additional computer interface, I can also steer this antenna with a couple clicks of a mouse, making it about ideal for remote listening.

Each of these three antennas is connected to a four port Alpha Delta antenna switch, which feeds into another four port Alpha Delta switch that allows me to select one of four different radios. Only the Perseus was used in this case.

With all this in mind, let’s see if the SAL can earn its keep so to speak, or if I would’ve been better off spending my hard earned money on a dummy load and a keg of beer.

Comparison 1: Radio Vanuatu, October 29, 2014. Approx. 1230 UTC.

This video is pretty much a slam dunk for the SAL-20. It takes a signal that neither the magnetic loop or the longwire could really hear and makes it intelligible.

While I could tell something was there with the other antennas, the SAL was the only one to recover any listenable audio.

Comparison 2: VL8A, November 5, 2014. Approximately 1230 UTC

Radio Australia (VL8A out of Alice Springs) on 4835 isn’t a very difficult catch, it is very difficult to get an intelligible audio before WWCR’s sign off at 1300. Their transmission on 4840 usually overwhelms the Aussies. note the really narrow passband on the Perseus.

Comparison 3: 1030 kHz, mediumwave. November 6th, 2014. Approximately 0300 UTC.

This is another case of seeing how each antenna handles co-channel interference. In this case, it’s the 50,000 watt WHO radio on 1040, located about 40 miles to the Southeast of my location.

Comparison 4: WPSO, October 7, 2014. Approximately 0230 UTC

Not much of a comparison really, but interesting nonetheless. All three antennas had a loud copy on ESPN Radio out of Indianapolis on 1500, but I could hear something else underneath it on some of the deeper fades. When I pointed the SAL to the Southeast, I heard Greek music. After some digging around, it turned out to be 250 watt WPSO out of Port Richey, FL. The music matched up with their web stream, so no doubt about this one. No video, but I do have some audio:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/171128979″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Some Final Observations

Obviously the SAL-20 is a beast, and I’m happy to have one at my disposal. Its performance and relatively compact size make it a no brainer for guys like me who do not have the real estate for a Beverage wire. No, it is not a cheap antenna, but what in this hobby is? Getting the last 10% of performance out of any hobby will cost you, and this is definitely an antenna that gets you into that last 10%. Is it better than a Beverage? No, probably not, but that would be a really interesting comparison.

There’s an old adage in the ham community that says more receive antennas are better than less, and I would agree with that. Each of these antennas has a role to play at my listening post, and each can excel under different conditions. One example of this was Dr. Benway’s recent Undercover Radio transmission on 1720. While I don’t have any audio or video of this, I found the magnetic loop to be the best performer of the three. It gave me just a little more signal strength than the SAL in a situation where I really needed it, and the longwire didn’t hear much of anything.

So yes, the SAL definitely earns its keep and then some. I’m glad I have my other antennas to fall back on, but the SAL will definitely be doing most of the heavy lifting from here on out.

I highly recommend this antenna.

The Saga of the Shared Apex Loop Array (SAL-20)

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The finished product.

Back at the Dayton Hamvention in 2013, Array Solutions debuted a new compact receive antenna system called the Shared Apex Loop array, or SAL. Building upon the foundation laid by the EWE, K9AY, and the flag and pennant antennas, the SAL featured true time delay phasing, and no need for a control wire from the shack to the antenna or grounding. Best of all, if the plots and modeling were any indication, this antenna might actually live up to the promise of Beverage like performance in a small lot.

This last weekend, after being flooded out the last time I tried to put it up in July, I took advantage of what may be our last good weather of the year and got a SAL 20 up and running in my yard. It wasn’t easy, but its up and receiving signals.

My make-shift soldering station.
My make-shift soldering station.

Since the wires that came with my antenna had a close encounter with the lawnmower, I needed to cut new ones to make into the four loops. According to Array Solutions, they recommend 62′, but a little longer is fine as long as all the wires are the same length. With this in mine, I cut four lengths of wire each 64′ in length, using up the rest of my 12ga wire minus an 11″ remnant.

After that, I went ahead and fed them through the mas before feeding the couplers, an insulator, and a shrink wrap tube over the wire before tinning them. There’s a reason soldering is not listed on my resume as a skill, but I did ok, and sealed the joints with the shrink wrap after I was done.

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The mast is up, held in place with two ‘shepherd’s hooks’. Note the wires taped to the mast to keep them from getting tangled (again).

Now it was time to get this beast up in the air, and here’s where I met my first obstacle. I managed to tangle my wires up pretty good while I moved the antenna over to where I’d be putting it up, and I ended up having to cut them and start over. This time though, I didn’t solder them before setting the mast up. Instead, I taped them to the mast at the base so that they wouldn’t get tangled again, and soldered each one individually.

Now that I finally had it up in the air, I went and put the stakes into the ground and tied each loop down at the corner, forming four triangles at right angles to each other. Since my dog bone insulators didn’t show up until this morning, I improvised and used inch long sections of PVC pipe. They’re cheap, they were available, and the antenna won’t care.

A close up of the magnetic coupler.
A close up of the magnetic coupler.

Once everything was in line and tied down, I measured out the distance for the couplers from the center mast. According to Array solutions, Each coupler should be about 86″ from the center of the mast with the positive lead facing outward. Using a measuring tape from the base of the mast, I lined up each coupler so that the center was at the 86″ mark. This will need a little fine tuning before its a finished product, but it’s a good starting point.

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DX Engineering’s crimping tool for the win!

Now that everything was positioned properly, I wired all of the couplers up to the central ‘junction box’, and attached the delay cable. After making quick work of a coax run to the shack (thanks to DXEngineering and their awesome F type connectors and crimping tool), it was almost time to see if this antenna was worth the effort.

Of course, as with most of my projects, I came up a cable short. The control box for the antenna uses an RCA out jack, while everything I own is either an N or SO-239. Time to break out the soldering iron again, and one sacrificed RCA cable and a PL-259 pig tail later, I had a crude but effective RCA to PL-259 cable.

The 'finished' control box that needs to be cleaned up a little.
The ‘finished’ control box that needs to be cleaned up a little.

Now by this time it was already dark, and the instructions do not recommend trying to optimize reception after sunset. I still wanted to see what this antenna could do though, so fired up the Perseus and I went about putting the new antenna through its paces. Some of my initial tests were kind of disappointing, like my inability to null out the nearby KASI on 1430 (the same station I tested the Pixel Loop out on last year). On other frequencies though, I could hear a different station with each direction I chose, which is pretty cool.

Later on in the evening, I saw a post about Magic Lantern International, a Euro pirate, relaying a show on 6205 kHz. While my copy on them wasn’t very strong, they were strong enough for me to identify the music being played and catch a ‘Laser Hot Hits’ (the station they were relaying) ID. Just out of curiosity, I fired up the Elad through my secondary long wire to see how it compared. The Elad and the long wire didn’t catch a trace of them. The SAL-20, pointed to the Northeast, had a listenable copy, while the 75′ long wire couldn’t even catch a whiff.

While this antenna is still a work in progress, this beast shows an awful lot of progress. I not only heard VL8A and VL8K this morning, I also heard a very loud and listenable signal from North Korea as well. Even better than that though, I saw some faint traces of carriers from Asian mediumwave transmitters. That’s not much to go on, but it’s more than I’ve seen from any foreign mediumwave signal before.

All in all, this is shaping up to be a fantastic DXing season.